Thursday, May 21, 2015

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat, But Maybe Cutbacks

Growing up, in history class we learned about the Pony Express, and the history of the US Post Office.  When we think of modern society and the integrity we have come to rely upon, there are many pieces (technological inventions) that hold that integrity in place - the invention of time zones so we can coordinate activities, of course all the communication technologies, but to me, it seems the bedrock of that integrity consists of a reliable postal service.

Over the years, the technology involved in delivering mail has become quite massive.  Remember those bar codes that helped the computers scan your letters and route them?  They scan at amazingly high speeds in massive sorting facilities, and that pretty much unerringly routes your mail.  Nowadays the technology is so advanced, it can scan printed and even written addresses without bar codes, and accurately route it (to the tune of hundreds of letters a second).

Banks count on it.  Mail order businesses count on it.  Utilities count on it.  Legal entities count on it.  Indeed, much of the pillars of our economy and society rely on the assumption that, if you drop a letter in the mailbox, it will arrive in a predictably short time to the destination, without fail (except in extreme cases, say if a mail delivery gets destroyed by disaster).

Yes, we all know that, so what? you may ask.  We just recently had a big family event, where we sent out invitations, got back RSVP cards, and sent out Thankyou notes.  This consisted of over 400 individual pieces of mail going back and forth over a few months of time.  And that's just orchestrated by us, one family.  Imagine the load the USPS has to deal with on a daily basis.

Now, with that large of a batch, you may not be surprised to find out that perhaps a letter got lost.  And historically, that has been our collective experience - occasionally, perhaps a piece of mail falls down in the delivery truck, gets missed, and ends up being late.  Perhaps a piece is destroyed, or damaged - but if damaged, the USPS still delivers with an apology.  However, we found that around 10 invitations never made it, and several more were delayed (that's not including the few returned for wrong address).  Several RSVP's didn't make it back (we confirmed by phone), and about 8 people mentioned they didn't receive Thankyou notes.  On top of that, several more local deliveries (anticipating 1-2 days) were delayed by more than a week (8-9 days to deliver). 

Adding that up, that gives around 20 pieces out of 400 that were lost, and several more that were delayed, say 25.  That's 6%.  And when we are used to relying on it to the point where we mail and forget, 6% is a massive number.  Multiply that out by the USPS daily volume.

Now, this is not our first time around the block - we had the same family event 3 years ago, during the exact same time of year, during which it never even occurred to us to doubt the reliability and integrity of the USPS.

When we asked the Post Office about this, we also found out something quite surprising.  All my life, we had known that the USPS operated a huge sorting facility in Troy, MI, where most area mail was routed through.  We found it had been closed for what she said to be almost 20 years, and that even more mail was now routed through a much more remote facility - in Ohio.  And this, she said, was the cause of why it now takes longer to send mail, and it is less reliable.

Unless, of course, you put tracking on it.  In which case it arrives 100% of the time.  And if you expedite, it arrives faster.  To me, this seems a blatant way of holding us hostage.  If you pay the ever-spiraling First Class postage rate, you basically get Third Class service - unless you also pay the exorbitant fees of a swindler to "guarantee" that your parcel gets there.  And let me tell you, we aren't going to do that on 400 pieces of mail.

So, I ask you, where is technology going with this?  Is the sending of physical written pieces of information becoming a thing of the past?  Do we now e-mail, hyperlink, e-fax, text or post what we want to send from now on?  Do we resort to non-Post Office couriers for packages?  Maybe the USPS has mismanaged its public trust, and maybe it's time to let it fail completely.

As a society, do we now rely upon invitation management web sites and e-mail?  What about those family members who are not so Internet savvy, who don't use smart devices, and who don't keep up on e-mail or social networking?  I feel cheated and betrayed, as if yet another pillar of the country and society we grew up loving and admiring is cracking, falling apart, in an increasingly apathetic and irresponsible public.  Is that just a feeling, or is there something to that?

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